Aesthetics Alone Do Not Imply Competitiveness

He is one of the rare few whose work was recognized at the very beginning of his career, which also shows in the number of important international clients he has been designing for in the past 10 years: Alessi, Artek, Arabia, Beauty Prestige International, Cassina, IXC, Danese, Design House Stockholm, Finlandia Vodka Worldwide, Finlayson, Genelec, Iittala, Lundia, Magis, Maruni Wood Industry Inc., Issey Miyake Inc., Montini, Muji, O luce, Panasonic, Seiko Instruments Inc.., Swarovski, Venini, Woodnotes, etc..

Harri Koskinen is truly one of the greatest Finnish designers of today, even though he won’t admit that, but he emphasizes a great contribution of design teams in the Finnish companies. However, when you go to his website and look at the number of products presented, you’re not sure whether you are looking at the product portfolio of an international company or a body of work of just one designer in the past 10 years.

In a case like this, providing usual evidence of design values by listing numerous awards is completely unnecessary. Suffice to mention just one: a decision of the jury that awards one of the most prestigious art and design awards in the world – Torsten & Wanja Söderberg’s Prize of Sweden – was unanimous, declaring him the winner for 2009, emphasizing that Koskinen, despite his youth, is perhaps the greatest modern Finnish designer. In addition to honor, this award contributes financially to the further development of laureates’ careers, rewarding them with the amount of approximately 97,000 euros.

His work for a large number of international companies in various markets is the example of the extent to which design and business go hand in hand. A few years ago Koskinen entered entrepreneurship by launching production of its own brand Harri Koskinen Works.

He also became a partner for the Finnish organic local food store – Eat & Joy Farmers Market, for which he designed the interiors.

We met him at Belgrade Design Week in late May 2011 and learned first-hand about the phenomenon of his success. Although he worked for various companies, using all available materials, wood, textiles and plastic, Harri is best known for his design of glass objects. The famous “Block Lamp” is one of his first designs which made him instantly famous back in 2000, when he established his studio “Friends of Industry”.

However, when you take a look at his designs for Iittala, you will understand the unique sensibility of this designer whose modesty is proof of the high level of his expertise, which results in objects that people worldwide use in their homes.

Design Companies Are More Important Than Designers

Finland is known worldwide for its older generation of designers. You are a representative of the new wave of Finnish design. What is currently the main feature of Finnish design?
In a way, everything was new in the age of Alvar Aalto, Tapio Wirkalle, Timo Sarpaneva and Kaj Franck. Other countries also have their own famous designers who made history. However, it really is impressive that such a small country like Finland managed to be recognized in the world for its design. However, for a long time now, individuals in Finland do not stand out, and we do not support the system of star designers. Design-related knowledge in Finland is embodied in large companies such as Fiskars, Marimekko, Artek, Nokia, Suunto, Polar, Kone and the like – they have excellent design teams. That’s the way design is treated in Finland. Designers simply do not care for publicity and are satisfied with the opportunity to do meaningful, concrete projects.

What skills and knowledge should a designer of today possess in order to work on companies’ complex business problems?
I started studying graphic design, but I switched to industrial design because it offers greater challenges. However, in this profession you begin to learn only when you start working with actual companies and meeting your clients – when you come to a deeper understanding of their business context. You need to be very clear about who you are designing for, whose problems you are solving.

The more prepared you are through education – not only in design but also in economics and engineering – the better you will cope in the real situation and solve different problems.

Immediately after graduating from the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, you were offered a job in Iittala, which is not very common. What was it like for you, as a young designer, to collaborate with a company with such iconic heritage?
As a student I won a scholarship which included working for Iittala. I spent three months in a factory surrounded by the company’s history and know-how. Then they decided to hire me as their designer and I remained with them for four years. I was privileged with this offer because finding a job as a designer in Finland right after graduation from college is very rare. There I gained valuable experience, but in late 2000, I decided to establish my own studio. By that time, I had already gained extensive experience in working with glass, and at that time the first products from my Pro Arte collection were launched. The products from the Art Works collection were launched in 2009. In order to create new products for Iittala, a Swedish consulting company participated in the process.

You had a chance to work with many innovative companies that appreciate good design and know how to work with designers. Can you describe that collaboration?

Every company has a different approach, depending on the complexity of the project. In my studio – Friends of Industry – we do everything in teams, and the client is one of the team members. I have to say that about 75% of our projects will never be materialized because they are a part of our consulting services related to research and development. For example, we advise companies who are starting new projects, the companies that have applied for subsidies for the Finnish Innovation Fund. In order for their request to be approved, they must have a detailed idea and design documentation, which is a where we come in, advising them on how to develop products in a better and more competitive manner. We also design their products for them, but that is not the most important thing at this stage. For them, we explore the innovative applications of new materials or we invent a technique that will improve certain process or a method of manufacturing. One client was developing equipment for the manipulation of muscles during rehabilitation. The device was made of a new material, and our task was to find a way to adjust it so that a person can manage it directly, with his/her body.

You designed objects made of almost every material, using various kinds of materials equally well.
Materials are like computers. You must know the technique and the tools you are working with. You also must have the problem to solve, the concept of your idea and the consumers for whom you design. If you start working with the intention to make something out of glass, than what you do is a hobby, not design. When you start working on a concept, it doesn’t matter which material you are using. The only important thing is that you know the material well.

Aesthetics Alone Do Not Imply Competitiveness – Innovation Does

Would you say – based on your international experience – that the companies are using design more or less in their competition strategies?
It depends on the company – the ones that work on innovations are more successful on the market than those with traditional approach. Good design is the essential part of all consumer goods. But today, it is no longer enough to invent a new form or a beautiful object, and those companies that invest in decorating are not competitive enough. However, there is always need for better solutions to some problems and if you provide that solution, you gain a longer-term competitive advantage on the market.

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Been a few weeks after the end of the Belgrade Design Week, but in my mind is still alive all the energy collected in the three very intense days in Belgrade. I enthusiastically accepted the invitation to the BDW 2010 but, honestly, I did not expect to live a so unique experience: BDW Conference is an incredible concentration of creativity, freedom, passion and feeling that involves all participants. Amazing the people of the organization guided by the genius and craziness of Jovan!